Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Why the West and Japan should stop preaching to a rising China

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
2017-07-07

Jean-Pierre Lehmann

Jean-Pierre Lehmann says the imperialist powers of old should acknowledge their own bloody history of plunder and exploitation, and work with Beijing to find a path to a peaceful rise, which so far is unprecedented

This year marks the anniversaries of a number of Asian historical landmarks. July 1 was the 20th anniversary of the handover of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the UK to China. August 8 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Asean declaration, the founding document of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This Friday, July 7, marks the 80th anniversary of the Japanese invasion of China, triggering the Pacific war that lasted until Japan’s surrender on September 2, 1945.

July 7 should be a day for reflection. Such was the case on June 6 three years ago, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, when the French president François Hollande hosted, among others, US president Barack Obama, Britain’s David Cameron, Canada’s Stephen Harper, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. This was one further indication that, while there are tensions in the Atlantic, the breakout of war, as occurred twice last century, is extremely unlikely.

Over the decades since the end of the second world war, there has been a great deal of dialogue, confidence-building and the establishment of solid institutions. Germany, for all the atrocities it committed, has been an exemplary European citizen and is arguably the Atlantic’s greatest guarantor of peace, just as it has proffered unconditional apologies.

Just as Germany has been the solution for peace in the Atlantic, Japan remains a critical problem for peace in the Pacific. In light of the composition and conduct of the Japanese government – with, inter alia, the Defence Minister Tomomi Inada paying regular visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, a sort of mausoleum for Japanese war criminals – it is highly unlikely that there will be reflection, let alone apology.

The Pacific war and its many ramifications tend to be ignored in Japanese education and public discourse generally. July 7 will not be marked by public forums among Japanese leaders, let alone with their Chinese, Korean, Singaporean or Filipino counterparts.

Instead, we hear of Japanese kindergartens spreading anti-Chinese and anti-Korean xenophobic messages and hotel chain proprietors (Toshio Motoya of APA) distributing in all rooms copies of his writings in which he denies the Nanking massacre occurred and claims that the Korean “comfort women” were not sexual slaves but prostitutes.

But the lessons from July 7, 1937 extend beyond Japan. The 21st century is witnessing the rise of another great global power: China. Though there has been a good deal of debate among Chinese intellectuals on the implications of great power rise, illustrated in the seminal 2005 article by Zheng Bijian (鄭必堅), “China’s Peaceful Rise to Great Power Status”, there has been little reflection among the other great powers on how they might contribute.

If one looks at, for example, the current membership of the G7, all the countries, with the sole exception of Canada, achieved great power status through war, conquest, plunder, imperialism, exploitation, enslavement, and so on. Thus, while Japan is a major problem for peace in the Pacific, its warmongering corresponded to a pattern set by other G7 members, including the US, Britain, France, Germany and Italy – and indeed by others including the Netherlands, Belgium and Russia.

While it has become seemingly pervasive for the Western powers and Japan to mount their high moral horses and admonish China that it should “play by the rules”, they fail to explain why at the time of their rise to great power there were no rules or, if there were, they were egregiously flouted.

Thus, the eloquent 1839 letter by the Canton commissioner Lin Zexu (林則徐) to Queen Victoria, imploring her to stop her subjects from forcefully infesting China with opium, was contemptuously ignored. Throughout the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, the “great” powers plundered the planet, including of course China. What rules were the British and French playing by as they pillaged the Beijing Summer Palace in 1860?

Nor is the behaviour of the Western powers just ancient history. American atrocities perpetrated against Vietnamese and Laotians continued into the third quarter of last century. As depicted in the excellent book by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, in fact the US has been pretty much continuously at war throughout the second half of the 20th century and most recently in the 21st, with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

One of the most compelling recent publications on the rise of China is by Geoff Dyer, The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China, in which he draws compelling parallels between the rise of the US as a great power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – manifest destiny, the Spanish-American war of 1898-99, resulting in the colonisation of the Philippines, and so on – and the rise of China in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The 1823 Monroe Doctrine, seeking to establish a US exclusive sphere of influence over Latin American, ultimately came to concrete fruition a few decades later with, among other things, the metamorphosis of the Caribbean as an “American lake”. This, Dyer suggests, is comparable to what China is aiming to do vis-à-vis Southeast Asia generally and the South China Sea [9] in particular – that is, that it should become a Chinese lake.

The argument that these were different times with different parameters does not wash. The main difference from a Chinese viewpoint was that, whereas then the Western powers and Japan were extremely strong and China was extremely weak, today, the Western powers, the US in particular, remain strong while China is no longer weak. Thus, in seeking to draw inspiration from the methods and achievements of great powers rising, what models are there other than the Western and Japanese imperialist nations? There is no precedent for peaceful rise.

This should not, of course, imply that while previous great powers looted and engaged in outrageous brutality, it is now “China’s turn”. But it strongly suggests that serious and honest reflection is called for, not only on the part of the Japanese, but also on the part of the other great powers, and on that basis to engage in genuine dialogue – not sermons – with China. Instead of getting on their moral high horses, sermonising from the alleged position of liberal values, far more constructive would be to admit – and eventually apologise – that in fact they behaved often abominably, feeling bound by no rules except that might is right.

This would seem the only viable means to engage China in its rise to great power, to contribute constructively to the unprecedented peaceful rise, and thereby to have some hope that peace may reign. Finally, after centuries of warfare, one could hope that great power bellicose rivalry might be relegated to the dustbin of history.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor at IMD, founder of The Evian Group, and visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong


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The Asian financial crisis teaches the need for bold reform, but is China listening?

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
2017-07-03

William Pesek

William Pesek says regional economies that appear to have recovered from the crash are struggling with structural problems and stagnating incomes, as policymakers baulk at needed reforms. Beijing, now facing similar risks, should take note

My favourite Asian crisis story involves Robert Rubin, an elevator and a pile of cash.

It was September 1997, and I’d just exchanged US dollars in our Jakarta hotel lobby. I was taken aback, and vaguely embarrassed, by the huge stack of rupiah I received – all with colourful money wrappers. In the elevator, I ran into then US Treasury secretary Rubin and one of his top lieutenants, Timothy Geithner. I was among a handful of Washington journalists accompanying them around Asia. Rubin looked at my loot and deadpanned: “I see you found time for a drug deal.”

That was 2½ months after Bangkok’s July 2, 1997 devaluation set Asia’s reckoning in motion. The good news, 20 years on, is that the Thai, Indonesian and South Korean currencies recovered and reserves were restocked. Banking systems were strengthened and economies made more transparent. Capital accounts were loosened and market regulation tightened. Wages bounced back, too. The bad news: income gains have largely stalled in recent years. Is the real legacy of that regional crisis a regional middle-income trap?

That’s when per capita income tops out at, or below, the US$10,000 mark, as it has for Thailand (about US$6,000), Indonesia (US$4,000) and even economies that technically avoided the worst of the crisis – including Malaysia and, perhaps, the Philippines. And while South Korea is the top of the income class – and a proud escapee of the middle-income category – it’s since been ensnared in a higher-income net.

What went wrong? In the immediate years after 1997, technocrats in Thailand, Indonesia and Korea implemented the International Monetary Fund’s reform playbook to modernise financial systems. Strong US demand did the rest, enabling Bangkok, Jakarta and Seoul to export their way back to 5 per-cent-plus growth. But the return of rapid gross domestic product growth deadened the urgency to do the real heavy lifting; weaning economies off exports; building credible institutions; increasing productivity and innovation; diversifying trade links; eradicating corruption; devising better energy strategies; and separating the public and private sectors.

Blame the “Cult of GDP”, something to which Asian leaders have long been susceptible. When heady growth returns, policymakers declare victory, pop the champagne corks and shelve painful upgrades. In the two decades since 1997, Asia’s crisis victims revelled in buoyant equity markets, claimed economies had decoupled from the West and toasted the tidal wave of bankers abandoning New York and London and relocating to Hong Kong and Singapore. And besides, China’s boom would keep the good times going. The cost of leaders believing their own press was slower wage gains. Asia is learning the hard way that “boosterism” is no replacement for economic retooling.

A large painting depicting the late Thai King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is seen outside the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre last month. Thailand has experienced two coups as a succession of leaders failed to spread the benefits of growth. Photo: EPA
A large painting depicting the late Thai King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is seen outside the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre last month. Thailand has experienced two coups as a succession of leaders failed to spread the benefits of growth. Photo: EPA

Thailand has experienced two coups as a succession of leaders failed to spread the benefits of growth and get the state out of the financial system (it has been in the hands of a military junta since May 2014). Indonesian incomes are stagnating as reform fatigue and parochial squabbles – over everything from access to natural resources to openness to foreign trade and religion – distract Jakarta. Progress stalled in Malaysia as scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak clings to affirmative-action policies benefiting ethnic Malays at the expense of competitiveness. In the Philippines, too, Rodrigo Duterte is putting a bloody war against drug pushers and users ahead of raising Manila’s economic game.

Korea beat the middle-income trap, but it’s now ensnared in a higher-income funk. Seoul’s failure to reduce the role of the family-owned conglomerates towering over all corners of the economy and catalyse a start-up boom has average incomes stuck near US$27,000.

Similar criticism could be hurled at Hong Kong, as it commemorates the 20th anniversary of its return to China. While per capita income is 11 times Indonesia’s, Hong Kong hasn’t expanded its growth engines beyond finance and overpriced property. The cost: exploding inequality that’s delegitimising the city’s Beijing-picked leadership and feeding combustible social tensions.

Bold structural changes are always easier when crashing currencies leave leaders no choice. Unless Asian governments relocate some of that 1997 urgency, they will rely more on debt to fuel growth than entrepreneurship and higher productivity. Little good would come of that. That’s Thailand’s big challenge as Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha tries to find his reformist mojo. It’s Joko Widodo’s problem in Jakarta as he struggles to take on vested interests working to regain power over the government. It’s also President Moon Jae-in [4]’s task in Seoul as he deals with a fresh bubble in household debt and rampant corruption.

And what of China? Few questions matter more than whether mainland incomes can reach US$10,000, and beyond. Never before has global stability been so dependent on such an opaque, unbalanced and developing economy. China “definitely has the potential to further catch up with the high-income countries and avoid [getting trapped]”, write Asian Development Bank economists Linda Glawe and Helmut Wagner. “However, the future performance of China’s economy depends on further reforms.” Those changes include altering a debt structure not unlike that of Thailand and other Asian governments, circa 1997.

For most, Asia’s collapse was just as unexpected as Wall Street’s 11 years later. China’s growth engines, it’s worth noting, are tantalisingly familiar: explosions in debt, credit and unproductive investments; chronic overcapacity; quantity of growth trumping quality; a sprawling shadow-banking machine; surging non-performing-loan ratios; policymakers drawing down currency reserves; regulators prodding domestic companies to go public before their time; and complacency among markets about how fast things could go awry. Beijing is treating the symptoms of its excess, not the root causes, in ways that are feeding ever-bigger bubbles. What’s more, US President Donald Trump’s threatened trade war is an ever-present threat to Asia.

Beijing, in other words, must do better than the class of 1997 in learning from past mistakes and preparing for future prosperity. Economic reform, remember, has something in common with the elevator in which I bumped into Rubin 20 years ago: it has the power to lift populations to new heights or leave them on the ground floor. Asia must work harder to ensure incomes regain an upward trajectory.

William Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist and the author of Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.


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從刻舟求劍到逆水行舟

明報
觀點
2017-07-03
馬嶽:

 

2017年6月,香港人被各種「回歸20年」的討論和回顧淹沒。我個人對這種年結式/十年結式的「回顧」一直興趣不大。我總覺得年月是時間的單位,從社會科學的角度,和社會變遷沒有因果關係,於是20年不見得比19年或21年更值得反省回顧,12月也不應比11月更有回顧價值。很多社會變遷都是持續性的,用「齊頭」的數字作結不見得是最好的框架。用文件或文字來規定社會在某段時間的變遷,像「50年不變」,本身就是不科學的。

多年來最重要的變遷是什麼?

這篇文章的截稿恰好定在6月30日,好像是某種命定要寫點和「回歸20年」有關的東西。這段日子給人問了很多相關問題,令我不禁想:這許多年來最重要的變遷是什麼?

一直以來,一國兩制的最深層次矛盾,是中港在政治價值上的差距,或者說是中國共產黨領導和港人主流在政治價值上的差距。我會問:二三十年來,這差距拉近了麼?

一國兩制基本構想上着眼的「兩制」差異,最初當然是經濟性的(「兩制」是社會主義和資本主義)。中國內地和香港最大的差異在經濟制度、生產力、發展水平和生活水平上,而原有法制、司法獨立和法治、各種人權和自由,是香港經濟制度重要的政治配件。在一國兩制原構想下,這些政治價值和制度上的差異,都可以在民族主義(「一國」)的大前提下包容。

「50年不變」的假設是,香港的生產力和制度都較先進,但假以時日中國內地在經濟發展、生產力和生活水平會追近香港,差異會因而拉近,可能50年後不需要再一國兩制。這個分析方法,當然是「很馬克思主義式」的。

網絡社會來臨和新身分政治興起

但人類是很難預測社會的長遠變化的。近二三十年世界社會的最大變化之一,用Castells的說法,是網絡社會的來臨和新的身分政治的興起。經濟變遷如後工業化、全球化和網絡力量,加上冷戰結束,令世界各地人民找尋新的身分,令民族國家(nation-state)的影響力下降、人民追求自主自由參與、抵抗父權,各種身分政治的運動應運而生(包括環保、性小眾、各種地域自主的運動等,當然也有向宗教原教旨主義和排外族群主義進發的)。

香港人尤其年輕一代緊貼全球化的趨勢,隨着踏進後現代和網絡社會,走向崇尚自由、自治、自主、後物質主義和平等價值,思考新的身分認同,認同各種後現代的運動,是自然不過的事。

世上不少先進國家面對網絡社會和新身分運動的挑戰,走向權力下放、尊重及回應地方自治的訴求、領導層年輕化、快速回應民意、加強施政的問責性;對各種後現代的運動訴求,例如環保和同性婚姻,也要加倍重視和積極回應。

但我們看中國官員對香港的話語和其盛載的價值,到了2017年卻仍然非常「前現代」。例如經常仍然用冷戰思維看問題:反抗運動都是「西方亡我之心不死」的結果。例如香港年輕人的問題是經濟問題、是不能上流和買房子的問題,對策是給更多經濟援助;「人心不回歸」就加強由上而下的教育,再多加些課時或者從幼稚園開始,例如強調國族主義和民族國家的必要,希望不斷強化國家功能來控制公民社會和民間自主。衡量一國兩制成功的標準永遠是「繁榮」和「安定」,永遠是經濟增長、建設和競爭力,不去問生活在其中的港人是否覺得自由快樂。面對政制民主化的要求,就祭出「國家安全」和「穩定」的大旗。回歸廿年滿街紅旗水馬,滿紙像是工業化初始階段的話語和口號,和香港近年的政治價值走向背道而馳,差距像不止一個世代,真的是「恍如隔世」。

二三十年前,中國政府還會比較虛心地承認香港問題他們不大懂,香港有很多先進的制度特質中國內地需要學習(例如法治、科學管理方法、公務員制度、廉政等等),於是《基本法》會加進不少制度限制,為防止內地影響香港建立一些「防火牆」。今天的中國自居「天朝」,信心滿滿地覺得「中國模式」可以垂範天下,變成了張浚生來教導香港人什麼叫法治、你們不懂管治香港我們來教你。這變成把「中國模式」看成最普遍優越的制度,覺得遠在「天朝國都」的人比香港人更了解香港管治,也不見得有什麼知識根據了。

20年「舟已行矣而劍不行」

10多年前,我就用過《呂氏春秋》中的「刻舟求劍」比喻來說香港的政治發展:「楚人有涉江者,其劍自舟中墜於水,遽契其舟曰:『是吾劍之所從墜也。』舟止,從其所契者入水求之。舟已行矣,而劍不行, 求劍若此,不亦惑乎?以故法為其國與此同。時已徙矣,而法不徙,以此為治,豈不難哉?」

這本來說的是,如果政治價值已經大變,但政制十多廿年都不變,是沒有能力回應新一代的政治訴求的。二三十年前,香港人還可以接受「安定繁榮」的話語,因為當年政治文化還很保守,殖民地的不民主體制邏輯八九十年代勉強還是可以管治的。20年都沒有與時並進,改革政制來跟上人民價值的轉變,就是「舟已行矣,而劍不行」了。

中國官員連與時並進的欲望也沒有

在2017年的今天看來,這個看法竟然還是太樂觀了。劍墜在水底,通常是不會動的。中港的政治價值鴻溝,卻可能是愈來愈闊。二三十年來中國內地的生產力和發展水平當然是大大追上香港,但政治價值差異卻沒有隨之拉近。當香港人的政治價值已經急速地隨着全球化和進入網絡世代而邁進後現代、後物質和新身分政治,中國官員仍然用一大堆工業化初始的概念看世界看香港,不單政治觀念沒有現代化,連與時並進的欲望也沒有了。河底有暗流,劍好像愈來愈遠了。

延伸閱讀:Manuel Castells, The Power of Identity(West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010)


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Hong Kong’s handover anniversary is an opportunity to restore faith in ‘two systems’

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-06-27
Anson Chan says the inspired solution of ‘one country, two systems’ has clearly floundered in recent years, and now is the time for incoming chief executive Carrie Lam, as well as Beijing, to act so the healing can begin and hope can return

The 20th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty has prompted a flurry of reflection and commentary, in both local media and, significantly, in the overseas press.

Back in 1997, if one was betting on the success of “one country, two systems”, the stakes would have been high. The concept, hailed as the brainchild of late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), is certainly one of the most imaginative constitutional balancing acts ever devised: an inspired solution to what seemed like the impossible ­dilemma of how to fit one of the world’s most thriving capitalist ­enclaves into the socialist straitjacket of Communist China.

At the same time, sustaining the concept over the 50 years of “no change”, prescribed under the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, was always going to be challenging. Leafing through some speeches ­I delivered shortly after the handover as chief secretary, I came across the following words from an address made in 1998 to the Asia Society in Washington: “None of us could know how our world might change after June 30, 1997. We had no precedent to compare with, or to follow. What we did have were the genuine good intentions and the best wishes of all parties involved. But even before the transition, I felt that, in the final analysis, it would be up to us, the people of Hong Kong, to make the transition work.”

My sentiments have not changed; if anything, I feel even more strongly that it is up to the people of Hong Kong to make “one country, two systems” work, up to and hopefully beyond 2047.

Project Citizens Foundation, of which I am a founding director, ­recently hosted a public forum on “Hong Kong 2047: Quo Vadis?” One of the speakers was Legislative Council member and Demosisto chair, Nathan Law Kwun-chung.

Law spoke movingly about how Hong Kong’s younger generations feel their future was just handed off by the British colonial power. As a result, they were robbed of any right of self-determination. This is why, he argued, so many young people struggle to identify with a motherland that doesn’t seem to understand their hopes and aspirations.

As I ponder the issue of where we go from here, I am reminded of the words of a song from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical: Jesus Christ Superstar : “I’ve been very hopeful so far, now for the first time I think we’re going wrong … could we start again please?’’

Why do these words resonate? Quite simply because, in the first few years after the transfer of sovereignty, “one country, two systems” worked as it was intended to do. Hong Kong continued to be administered by an able and politically neutral civil service, and there was no interference either by the leadership in Beijing, or the New China News Agency (the central government’s representative office before the liaison office was set up in 2000).

Until Hong Kong people are governed by politicians they respect and whom they can trust to protect their interests … it will be impossible to heal the rifts and safeguard ‘one country, two systems’

Things have gone badly wrong in recent years. Who is to blame? I do not intend to apportion blame, as it does not take us forward. Rather, I believe we should grasp the golden opportunity presented by the 20th anniversary of the handover, and the entry into office of a new chief executive, to start again: to turn over a new leaf in our relations with the central government.

First, Carrie Lam Cheng ­Yuet-ngor must step out of the shadow of the Leung Chun-ying era, with its lack of integrity and connivance in the relegation of Hong Kong’s status to a satellite of the mainland, rather than an ­important global city in its own right. She must quietly, but firmly, take back the reins of day-to-day governance of Hong Kong and make clear that, while her administration will respect fully its obligations under “one country”, the central authorities must stop eating away at the boundaries of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy guaranteed under “two systems”.

Recent thinly veiled warnings by the National People’s Congress chairman, Zhang Dejiang ( 張德江 ), to the effect that Beijing will not hesitate to tighten its grip in aspects such as the pace of political reform, its power over the chief executive, and its authority to ­appoint and dismiss key officials, are both uncalled for and totally counterproductive.

As Lam has already rightly emphasised to the leadership, the voices calling for independence for Hong Kong represent a tiny minority. The best thing Beijing can do is demonstrate that, having orchestrated her election as chief executive, they are prepared to trust in her judgement and show her the respect she needs to captain her ship.

Above all, Beijing must support Lam in taking steps to reverse the disastrous decline in the morale of the civil service, which is a direct consequence of its increasingly ­blatant interference in the day-to-day conduct of the bureaucracy.

I have made no secret, over the years, of my belief that the introduction of the political appointment system was misguided. It has drained the senior ranks of the civil service to fill ministerial positions and compromised the neutrality of those who remain. It has failed to nurture new political talent, as seen in the lacklustre performance of many of Leung’s team and the fact that Lam has clearly been less than successful in recruiting the new blood she had hoped for.

I am not convinced that the failure to attract ­talent from the private sector into government positions is due to ­lower pay, or a lack of public-spiritedness. Nor do I believe it is ­because they are discouraged by the (at times) toxic atmosphere in ­Legco. The only way to attract individuals of high calibre and integrity into the public service is to convince them they will be able to exercise their duties with intellectual rigour, impartiality, and according to their conscience. Until Hong Kong people are governed by politicians they respect and whom they can trust to protect their interests – politicians who have a genuine mandate by virtue of being ­appointed on the basis of a democratic system of fair and open elections – it will be impossible to heal the rifts in our society and safeguard “one country, two systems” for coming generations.

Bottom line? Lam cannot ­afford to place the issue of constitutional ­reform on the back-burner. At least, she must bring forward proposals to end the scandalous situation whereby the votes of a minority of vested interests in Legco and the Election Committee for chief executive can usurp the rights of the majority of Hong Kong electorate.

Lam cannot ­afford to place the issue of constitutional ­reform on the back-burner

Numerous well-thought-out proposals to broaden the electorate of the functional constituencies, or phase them out, were submitted during the 2013-2014 consultation process, ­including by my own Hong Kong 2020 think tank. All were ­ignored. These proposals should be revisited at the earliest opportunity.

Back on July 1, 1997, watching for the first time the raising of the national flag at the handover ceremony, I recall a sense of emotion that is hard to describe. I began to appreciate the spiritual propriety of Hong Kong’s return to the mainland. My family – like many in Hong Kong – did not leave China willingly. We left because we felt we had to.

I felt we had been a country and a people divided … now we had an ­opportunity to be whole

As a Chinese, I felt we had been a country and a people divided, travelling different roads and shaped by ­different events. Now we had an ­opportunity to be whole.

On July 1 this year, my emotions are going to be far more mixed. I will take pride in the achievements of the past 20 years, in the resilience of our community and its determination to hold on to the values, freedoms and way of life we hold dear. At the same time, I will feel disappointment and alarm that the precious concept of “one country, two systems” seems to be floundering, despite the best efforts of so many.

The visit of President Xi Jinping (習近平),who arrives on Thursday to officiate at the anniversary celebrations, is an opportunity I hope our country’s leader will embrace: an opportunity to promote the healing process and give our young people hope. Could we start again please?

Anson Chan, a former chief secretary of Hong Kong, is convenor of Hong Kong 2020


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Hong Kong’s next leader Carrie Lam will still have to rely on some old hands to fill her governing team

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-05-12

Bernard Chan says despite the appeal of having new people with fresh ideas in the cabinet, the chief executive-elect can’t overlook experience and will seek to groom more talent from within

In barely six weeks’ time, a new government will take office in Hong Kong with Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor as chief executive. She has had only a few weeks since the election in March to prepare for this new administration. Her No 1 priority must be to assemble a team of principal officials.

The core are the “3+13” secretaries – the chief secretary, justice secretary and financial secretary, plus the ministers for such policy bureau areas as education, development and so on. Naturally, she will want the best people she can find. She is gathering names of possible candidates, and initially approaching people individually to see if they would be interested in serving in the new government.

Although this sounds straightforward, I think we can safely say the selection process is a challenge. Remember that this has had to happen in a short space of time. And bear in mind that we are not talking only about the search for the 16 secretaries – there are undersecretaries and other positions to be filled.

In my view, in order to be a candidate a potential principle official must meet five conditions.

First, they must be widely respected for all-round ability. They need to have media and people skills. Ideally, they should have some public-service experience, and recognised knowledge in the policy area concerned.

Second, they must be willing and able to work with the chief executive-elect and other future colleagues. They have to be personally compatible.

Third, they must be willing to work in the government, and ideally enthusiastic about the idea. If you know anything about the challenges of our political system and the internal divisions in our society, you will not be surprised to learn that this is a real barrier. A lot of people are happy to help from outside – but they do not want to get in the firing line.

Fourth, they must be acceptable to the central government in Beijing.

Fifth, they must be acceptable to the people of Hong Kong.

Even if a candidate can tick all these boxes, there are practical considerations that can still get in the way. For example, a candidate might have a passport from a foreign country. In some cases, renouncing foreign citizenship would be too time-consuming, or involve personal sacrifice. And of course there are other personal considerations, such as an individual’s other ambitions, or a need to put their family first.

The pool of possible candidates is also limited by the fact that politics is not a career in Hong Kong. There are not many routes from local to higher-level political office, or through political parties into government.

Given all these hurdles, we should not be surprised if we learn that Carrie’s transition team is looking for candidates among people who are already in government. I expect some people will groan at the idea of more civil servants and serving officials being moved into ministers’ positions. The idea of lots of “fresh faces” is superficially appealing.

Then again, some citizens might prefer the next administration to draw on in-house experience and talent. Given the challenges facing Hong Kong, this may not be a good time to parachute in a large number of outsiders, even if there were plenty to choose from. As I say, the new administration will need to recruit people for other positions like undersecretaries and political assistants. Given the difficulties in finding qualified senior officials, these positions are likely to produce some of our future political talent. Selecting people for these jobs will be of vital importance.

So the work of finding and finalising the new team is bound to be hard. We can expect some familiar faces, some less familiar ones and some brand new ones – from a mix of backgrounds. But don’t be surprised if a fair proportion come from inside government.

This should not mean that the next administration will lack fresh ideas. In her manifesto, Carrie has pledged to reach out and listen to different parts of the community. That willingness to consider views from beyond the normal corridors of power could be the biggest and best “fresh idea” of all. The truth is that we cannot rely on just 16 people, wherever they come from, for all the answers.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council